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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir

My Life In CIA

Harry Mathews

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase My Life In CIA

Title: My Life In CIA
Author: Harry Mathews
Genre: memoir
Written: 2005
Length: 203 pages
Availability: My Life In CIA - US
My Life In CIA - UK
My Life In CIA - Canada
Ma vie dans la CIA - France
Mein Leben als CIA - Deutschland
  • A Chronicle Of 1973

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Our Assessment:

B+ : genial, good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 4/4/2005 Thierry Gandillot
The Guardian . 27/8/2005 Chris Petit
London Rev. of Books . 21/7/2005 Daniel Soar
NZZ . 1/2/2007 Jürgen Ritte
The NY Observer A+ 16/5/2005 Gerald Howard
The NY Rev. of Books . 5/10/2006 Mark Ford
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/5/2005 Alan Furst
Nouvel Observateur . 17/3/2005 Jérôme Garcin
TLS . 1/7/2005 James M. Murphy
Voice Literary Supplement . Spring/2005 David Ng
Die Welt . 21/10/2006 Wieland Freund

  From the Reviews:
  • "My Life in CIA is the opposite of Tom Clancy, being thin and witty and interested in concept. (...) What one doesn't expect, especially after several improbable sexual encounters which suggest that the reader is the ultimate target of his tease, is for it to turn into a taut manhunt, which is exactly what it does." - Chris Petit, The Guardian

  • "Ein Erzähler, der den Bericht von seiner eigenen Liquidierung als die reine Wahrheit akkreditiert -- mit diesem abschliessenden Vexierbild ist der Roman trefflich charakterisiert: Mathews knüpft ein Möbiusband, bei dem die Seiten 'wahr' und «falsch» ineinander übergehen. Wie bei jedem echten Spionageroman." - Jürgen Ritte, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "In short, in My Life in CIA, Mr. Mathews has resuscitated that sadly neglected genre, the put-on. (...) The year 1973 was a major node of everyday disappointment, yet the author manages to re-enchant it with his high wit and linguistic agility, and the sort of no-sweat aplomb and insouciance that he shares with his literary friends and allies, the New York Poets. He accomplishes this with such nimble charm -- his hard work and literary discipline gracefully concealed -- that one is tempted to dub Harry Mathews the Fred Astaire of American letters." - Gerald Howard, The New York Observer

  • "Though its plot spins in all manner of implausible directions, the overall narrative arc of My Life in CIA is very much that of the bildungsroman. The protagonist is not, however, negotiating the uncertainties of early adulthood, but a midlife crisis." - Mark Ford, The New York Review of Books

  • "(N)o matter the rough edges of its spy-novel mechanics, My Life in CIA is extremely appealing. (...) Still, insouciant or not, you write a novel at your peril. You believe, at the beginning, that you own it, but then it turns out to own you. There is some pleasure to be had in watching this play out in My Life in CIA, because the biochemistry that kicks in two-thirds of the way through a novel will not be denied." - Alan Furst, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Dans ce livre brillantissime, souvent hilarant, parfois torride, toujours passionnant (...) Harry Mathews n’a jamais été plus oulipien." - Jérôme Garcin, Nouvel Observateur

  • "Having written an amiable and diverting novel, Harry Mathews deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt -- or should one say, the credence." - James M. Murphy, Times Literary Supplement

  • "As a spy novel, My Life in CIA is designed to disappoint. (Think of a Robert Ludlum thriller bled of all suspense, and then turned inside out.) Mathews leaves subplots unresolved, abruptly writes off supporting characters, and otherwise luxuriates in an inexplicable stasis. Upending genre conventions, he's somehow created more than just a pranksterish anti-adventure." - David Ng, Voice Literary Supplement

  • "Mathews Spiel mit dem Bedürfnis des Lesers, Sinn zu machen und dafür notfalls auch um zwei oder drei Ecken zu denken, ist mindestens so elegant wie seine Prosa." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In the 1960s and early 1970s Harry Mathews had enough money and enough time to live relatively comfortably and carefree. He'd written some books and eventually joined the Oulipo, but as an American in Paris in turbulent times (Viet Nam, May 1968, Chile) with no real job he was a somewhat suspicious figure, and it's not surprising many of the locals hit on the obvious explanation: he was CIA. It wasn't the first time he'd been pegged as such: he'd travelled to Laos in 1965 as a guest of the British ambassador, and naturally everyone took him to be what every other American in Laos at the time could only be: a CIA agent.
       Living in Paris in 1973 Mathews decided to turn the tables: if everyone thought he was CIA, why not pretend to be CIA ? And so he began to act in a manner designed to confirm everyone's suspicions, playing at being a secret agent. For cover he borrowed the name of the literary magazine he ran, Locus Solus, for a travel agency-front -- an ideal sort of profession for a spy. He even got some business (and money) -- ingeniously, in one case, using Oulipian methods to counter travel-stress dyslexia.
       It's fun and games for a while, as he leads people astray, meets a variety of figures who are really in the spy game, and concocts elaborate schemes. Old friend master sculptor Jean Tinguely (whom Mathews' ex-wife had taken up with) lends a helping hand in producing something that Mathews can fob off as a piece of the Russian Tupolev that crashed at Le Bourget that year, and he fools a few more people with some of the other things he does.
       Mathews manages to make contact (of sorts) with both the Communists and the Fascists, but things don't work out quite so well there. Among the Communists he is denounced not for being CIA, but for belonging to that "gang of cynical formalists", the Oulipo. Meanwhile, the far right has considerably darker designs on him.
       The memoir moves from it being an amusing game to a more sinister spy-novel level, with mysterious activity (he's hired to convey a package to Austria) and then outright spy-film action (at one point he is actually transported rolled up in a rug). It finally dawns on him that maybe the game has gotten out of control when someone informs him that: "Your elimination has been authorized."
       It turns out to be a bit late to convincingly undo what he's done, and in best spy-book manner a cat-and-mouse/run-for-your-life game ensues.
       How plausible is My Life In CIA ? It shouldn't matter too much; it's certainly not meant to be taken too seriously -- as Mathews himself treats his CIA-playing as a game, and is unable to take the real CIA very seriously either (much less the other dubious figures he comes into contact with). But in their simplicity and absurdity almost all the episodes are believable, and if Mathews has embellished a good deal as well, no harm is done. It's a fun book, nicely narrated by a man with a bit too much time on his hands and a bit too good an imagination (allowing him both to concoct these ideas, and to get himself in a fair amount of trouble). His refusal to take the spying business seriously also contrasts nicely with the deadly serious people he comes into contact with: two worlds colliding, with tragi-comical results.
       Many people want to play at being spies, and Mathews' variation on the age-old dream is an entertaining warning against it. The naïve central character -- not quite Our Man in Havana --, an unsettled world around (Chile, the oil crisis, the Cold War), mysterious packages, coded warnings, incriminating photographs, chases, a few good sex scenes, a dash of Oulipian games (which always seem to come in handy) -- it all adds up to an enjoyable would-be spy story, as well as a fine memoir of a slice of Mathews' life.
       Nicely done, and good fun: certainly recommended.

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My Life In CIA: Reviews: CIA: Harry Mathews: OuLiPo: Other Books by Harry Mathews under Review Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Harry Mathews was born in 1930. He graduated from Harvard. In 1952 he moved to Paris, becoming a member of the OuLiPo in the early 1970s.

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© 2005-2010 the complete review

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